Cultural Context

Context is everything.  Culture is not necessarily immoral, but it is also not necessarily amoral either, for instance, the goofy large sunglasses that girls are wearing now and the aviator glasses that the guys wear, these styles are culturally driven, and are completely amoral.  You would have to be a legalist of the worst sort to pronounce condemnation on someone for the type of sunglasses they wear.  This is a cultural fad with no moral implications.  At the same time, we must also recognize that not all cultural issues are amoral, for instance the cultural tendency to mock father figures in popular television shows is immoral.  The issue is not a mere issue of cultural preference but is an attack on God’s created order, and an undermining of the systems of authority He has set up.  So it is never safe to say that something is acceptable because culture accepts it, and at the same time it is never acceptable to condemn a cultural fad solely on the basis that it is a culture issue.  Acceptable practice must be determined by the word of God, and not culture.

The legalist screams ‘separate’ with regards to all culture... and if they decide to be completely consistent in their separation they will eventually be Amish (few dare to endeavor to be that consistent.)  At the same time those who try to contextualize everything to the culture will begin using material that is clearly immoral in their presentation of the Gospel, ie certain movie clips, tv shows, music... etc.  The point is that culture is merely the accepted practice of the populous, that’s it.  Sometimes it is perfectly legitimate, other times it is sin, and all of the time we must be wise in our discernment of culture.

 What is said above is pretty obvious, but there is a much more insidious danger caused by culture that goes largely unnoticed.  The effect of culture on the population whether it is immoral or amoral can and does cause deception beyond what we can imagine.  The effect that culture has on every one of us is beyond our own comprehension, and if we do not consider it while reading the scriptures we will misunderstand nearly everything we read.

For instance a common verse used in youth ministry is 1 Tim 4:12

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12 ESV)

In our American ‘don’t tread on me’ thinking this verse takes on a meaning that has been accepted as orthodox by almost all of the professing church in America.  The verse is understood to mean that our youth should not let people look down on them, and that they are equal parts of the kingdom, and that they need to be empowered, and they have a say... etc.  Our culture of ‘nobody walks on me’ thinking has led us to see this verse as a youth empowerment verse.  However that is nearly the opposite of the actual meaning of the verse.  Paul is warning Timothy to give the Church no reason to despise His youthfulness.  He is commanding Timothy to so order His life that He would be an example of maturity that the older congregation would be able to pattern themselves after.  This verse is not an affirmation of the value of youthfulness, instead it is a command to leave youthfulness and to live as a mature man before the Church.  The actual meaning of this verse is the opposite of what is for the most part taught, and it is because we have viewed this passage through our context and not its original context.

The whole of John 3:1-21 we do the very same thing.  In America born-againism is a cultural norm.  We have preached ‘ye must be born again’ to the point where many Christians identify themselves as ‘born-again Christians’, as though ‘born-again Christian’ is the standard term for an orthodox believer.  This discourse of Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:1-21 also includes the famed John 3:16 which in and of itself is a verse that is engrained in our culture.

But what is happening in this discourse?  Jesus is affirming that all people must come into the New Covenant in order to be saved, specifically that Nicodemus’ Jewish ancestry was not sufficient to save, but that He must be born of water and spirit... that is He must be born again because His first birth into Israel is not sufficient.  Do you see what is happening here?  This verse John 3:3 which says ‘you must be born again’ is specifically laid forth to establish that the Jew cannot rely on His lineage to save Him.  This was not some universal call out to the world, this was a midnight discourse between Jesus and a Pharisee.  Context is everything.  Now must everyone be born again to be saved?  Well what to do you mean?  It is a bad term to use with regard to “everybody”.   This discourse was not a blanket command to everybody.  We may also look at John 3:16.  What is the purpose of this verse... again it is Jesus saying that God’s love and salvation is not limited to the Jews, but that He so loved the world, that whosoever (Jew or Gentile) believed shall not perish.  The thrust of John 3:16 is similar to the thrust of John 3:3, and that is that the Gospel is effective and necessary for the Jew, and is also inclusive of the Gentiles.  Moreover in John 3:17-18 we see that Jesus is showing that not only gentiles, but Jews also will be condemned for unbelief.

Instead of taking these texts in their original context, we have put them in our own and it has distorted the whole thing.  We think that John 3:3 is a universal call to all to be born again and we miss that it is more about the establishment of a new covenant between God and all people.  Moreover we misread John 3:16 when we take it to be God loving this whole world just waiting for people to believe in Him so that they may be saved.  This is not the case, what the text is saying is that salvation has gone out beyond the Jews only, but even into the world.  It is as though Jesus is saying “For God so loves the world, Nicodemus, not only the Jews that whoever believes will not perish but have everlasting life.”  Moreover Jesus goes on “And those who have not believed, well they are condemned already, whether you are Jew or not doesn’t matter”.
Can you see how our culture causes distortion?

The scriptures certainly speak to us today, but they speak to us from their original context.  The scriptures still communicate the same truth they always have and in order to understand the original truth they spoke you must be willing to look at the original context they were spoken in.